Sunday, May 12, 2013

The nature of altruism. How it works?

Sergei Morozov

The nature of altruism. How it works? 

Altruism is one of the most popular themes in evolutionary psychology. It has been discussed for many decades, but nobody can discern any appreciable progress. Now the idea that genes of altruism will be found is popular.  It is possible, but if a scientist will know how to find and where to find, and above all what to find.

There is a set of phenomena, combined by term ‘altruism’. But these phenomena are different, have different nature and different appearances. Motives for altruism can be both conscious and subconscious.

Now nobody has authority to say which altruism is true and which is false. People have different upbringing, and some observers could see altruism there where a doer has selfish motives.

Usually altruism needs a doer and an observer. Nobody can say what pure altruistic behavior is. It is only possible to speak about how some altruistic behavior is accounted by different observers and doers.

I’ll try to find exactly evolutionary components of altruism. They must be some independent evolutionary adaptations, which to some degree comply with notion of altruism.

This article will be built on classical scheme ‘Thesis - antithesis - synthesis’. As a thesis I have taken mainly chapter ‘Altruism’ from Edward Wilson’s ‘On human nature’. As antithesis I’ll use my book ‘Sex and Rank’. I have chosen this Wilson chapter because it is well-known and was not seriously criticized. My book ‘Sex and Rank’ based on another book of Wilson, ‘Sociobiology’.

Some the other themes are taken from Wiki; Wiki article is terrible, but it good enough for using because it consists of all well-known wrong beliefs. Why it is a terrible will be shown below.

The task of finding altruism must be reformulated, not ‘what is altruism’, because nobody knows, but ‘what is called altruism’. Then it will be possible to find ‘How it works’ and causes of altruism behavior. And then, for the variants that can be found, it will be possible to try to find evolutionary components.

Wilson’s definition of altruism:

Generosity without hope of reciprocation is the rarest and most cherished of human behaviors,

Generosity is a behavior. Altruism is a behavior.

Wilson divides altruism at ‘hard-core’ and ‘soft-core’

On human nature: ...the bestower expresses no desire for equal return and performs no unconscious actions leading to the same end. I have called this form of behavior "hard-core" altruism, a set of responses relatively unaffected by social reward or punishment beyond childhood. ... "Soft-core" altruism, in contrast, is ultimately selfish. The "altruist" expects reciprocation from society for himself or his closest relatives.

So every exchange action can be called ‘altruism’. Is every shopping an act of altruism between buyer and vendor? Some scientists think ‘yes’.

Reciprocation is not altruism.

Reciprocation altruism resembles paid love. Paid love is not love, but just prostitution. Reciprocation altruism is reciprocation, but not altruism.

So altruism is altruism, reciprocation is reciprocation.

 ‘Soft-core’ variant is not altruism.

And once more - understanding on altruism is in the eye of observer, and observer can mistake ‘soft-core’ for ‘hard-core’ and vice versa, i.e. can mistake altruism for selfish non-altruistic action and vice versa.

Modern popular notions of altruism are more foggy than Wilson’s ones.

Question of altruism is divided in two

What are causes of behavior, which may be called ‘altruistic’?


What thing does somebody order to behave altruistically?

It may be only three things: intellect, instinct (program) or conditional reflex.

1. Defense of group members. Identification error

There is one of definitions:

Altruism – the “principle or practice of concern for the welfare of others” (Wikipedia)

In this case it is important to understand who ‘others’ are.

There is a basic instinct to protect offspring. All mammals have this instinct.

All social mammals have instinct to protect group members.

Humans protect not only group members, but also the other humans and animals.

In this case we can recognize direction of evolutionary progress. It goes in direction of expanding zone of defense.

And hierarchy of defense is the same: offspring are the first, kin are the second, group members are the third and then the all other.

One more definition:

Altruism is a well-documented animal behaviour, which appears most obviously in kin relationships but may also be evident amongst wider social groups, in which an animal sacrifices its own well-being for the benefit of another animal. (Wikipedia)

When one group of Gombe chimpanzee split up in two, chimps without any doubt had killed former kin. (It is very original variant of kin selection. Group selection appears stronger than kin selection). The border of group is complex concept.

There is an inherited program that define who must be defended. Usually it is kin, but there is difficulty with border. Question ‘from whom to defense’ is even more difficult.

All mammals know which a predator they can attack and which they cannot.

If a predator is identified, and it is possible to attack him, then it is necessary to attack him.

Baboon female will not protect her child from a leopard. Baboon male will do. All roles have been determined by programs.

When chimpanzee male try to attack a leopard his risk is minimal. Leopard will not fight, leopard has goal to kill and to go out. In mutual fight a leopard will kill chimpanzee, but it get injures and it will be problem to it to survive after. Leopards prefer to attack suddenly from an ambush to win without any injures.

In this case we can see work of program, and that work of program can be added with cultural elements, which transferred through imitation.

First variant of behavior that has mistaken for altruism is just work of programs.

When defense of group members is, some variants are possible:

- Death of defender variant 1. Defender was not healthy enough. Enemy has recognized it and attack defender. This is natural selection of defenders.

- Death of defender variant 2. Attacker has not enough experience or has not true program and attack defender. It is a rare situation. In this case attacker will be injured and this is natural selection of attackers. Leopards having inclined so wrong have less chance to survive and their offspring too.

- Defender has run off in fear. In this case competitiveness of group relative to the other groups is decreasing. But if defender is fearful, he cannot become an alpha. Roles of defender and alpha are linked by extended procreation, and more successful defenders have more offspring, because they have more chances to become an alpha. Usually fearful males restricted in procreation by members of group.

Chimpanzee and leopards have limited set of situations. As a result they have limited set of errors. Humans have more variants, and as a result humans make more different errors. These errors sometimes are appreciated by observers as ‘altruism’.

In every before mentioned situations there is execution of program of group member protection. Moreover, execution of program of group member protection is criterion for intergroup selection, which directed on support of this behavior.

It is possible to recognize that during evolution of species zone of protection was increasing. Offspring - group members - group members from group members - members of other groups. Genes of defining of protection zone must exist. Zone of defense of primates is all members of group, including defense of members of group from other members of groups.

Chimpanzee defend only members of own group. Somebody other’s child on enemy territory must be caught and eaten. But what to do if somebody other’s child is on territory of the group?

If child is in the field of view, it means that it is child of group. There is no possibility, that it is somebody else's child, because in savannah in field of view could not be somebody else's child. So, this child must be defended. The subconscious does not understand that people live in civilization, and not in savannah. (Savannah principle of Satoshi Kanazawa.)

First time every genetic alteration is broken code. This error has different value in different peoples. Humans are inclined to defend all children. Error is misunderstanding of group border. But this code is broken just relative to chimpanzee. For the people this ‘broken code’ is norm.

This border is expanding more and more. Situation is in a progress now. Some humans are eating children of chimpanzee. Some humans think it is true to protect not only humans, but chimpanzee too.

Finally, program error of identification group members exists, in result it appears human apply group behavior not only to own species, but also to other species. Every human has own zone of error. Some people can have to drown kittens, but cannot have to drown pups.

Instinct of group member protection in humans is the same as in baboons. Only zone of applying is changed. And for altruistic behavior this basic instinct must be working.

So, for altruistic behavior are needed:

- Basic instinct (program) of group member defense.

- Genetic error of identification border of group.

This error is undoubtedly useful for group member, because humans live in large groups and this error increases success of the whole group. Big groups have won small groups. Additionally it is identification sign for woman to choose more brave partners.

History of mankind is process of destroying of small and less organized groups by large and more organized groups. System of expanded identification is needed for organizing and support of expanded groups, such as tribe and nation. (S.Morozov, Nation andmass)

There are cognitive and executive programs (S.Morozov, Notion of Programs)

Executive program - defense of group members - is working properly.

Cognitive program - identification of group members - is working wrongly (Relative to chimps).

In sum we have that what is called ‘altruism’.

Some phenomena have double nature - instinctive and cultural. It is general situation when on genetic base a culture has built up. Culture is seemed as a prolongation of instinctive program behavior.

For example, grooming is an instinctive behavior. But details of grooming are cultural ones. Who, whom, where, when are cultural details. Border between instinct and culture undoubtedly exists, and may be demarcated.

Defense of offspring, women and group member is man’s specialization. So women must have some different system of identification. Healthy women are less altruistic than healthy men.

And one more conclusion: altruists are more aggressive than non-altruists. Additionally: women are less aggressive than men.

2. Mimicking action itself

Most of living species, including birds, can repeat actions they having seen.

Chicken have become to peck only after they could see somebody who pecks.

There is a link of action:

Need to act - act - seeing - repeating of act - possibility to repeat act

Hen needs to peck - hen pecks - chicken sees - chicken repeats - chicken can repeat

Humans are some more complex than chickens.

Humans have inclination to repeat somebody’s actions in imagination.

Repeating of actions in imagination provoke the same associations like the action itself.

In his imagination human stands himself on the place of human or animal being seen. And human can feel sense of discomfort. If somebody has his teeth bored, it is discomfort to see, isn’t it?

Sex and Rank: Most people have nothing to do with homosexuals, and healthy people should not really care about what they get up to. Hostility arises because a person adopts the actions of others through innate mimicry, sometimes mimicking the action itself – we only have to recall how the action of yawning can spread from one person to another. A person subconsciously mimics and his reaction is one of revulsion. This is how homophobia develops among men.

Moreover, some actions being seen are repeating unconsciously, e.g. yawning, coughing, and scratching.

So, observing of discomfort creates a sense of discomfort. Sense of discomfort provokes to get rid of discomfort. In this case to rid of own discomfort is to stop or facilitate somebody’s discomfort.

Degree of discomfort is linked to perception of norm, norm specifies data of environment. (For butcher it is difficult to feel sheep’s sufferings.) Determinative factor is imagination. If imagination is a weak, man cannot feel somebody’s pain on level of discomfort.

Opportunity to fancy itself on somebody place is self-sufficient evolutionary value for group.

This type of altruism is linked with possibilities of imagination.

Possibilities of imagination are inheritable.

Evolutionary benefits can be realized only in group.

Genes of strength of imagination can be found. And genes that make to submit to the influence of imagination can be found too. But the second will be a difficult task.

Altruists in this case have less self-control than non-altruists.

3. Perception of norm

Dogs like to attack cats and bicyclists.  But dogs which could see cats and bicyclists from their birth don’t attack them.

Dogs attack bicyclists altruistically.

Norm of perception of external world exists. Unfamiliar objects, subjects and actions arouse suspicions, stress and aggression.

Some people don’t like homosexuals and terrorists. If someone doesn’t like terrorists, it is possible to say with great confidence that someone didn’t grow up among terrorists.

Consciousness of man has been drawing detail of world in imagination. Man sees some details, and his imagination add some to picture. If during that process something goes wrong, if some details don’t coincide, man has got discomfort.

Consciousness has set of acquired norms. For most dogs cats and bicyclists are breach of norms.

Breach of norms can cause altruistic behavior. E.g.: ‘those people are suffering, let’s help them’ or ‘those fellows are bad, let’s kill them’. Of course, altruistically. ‘Bicyclists are evil, let’s bite them’.

Robert Heinlein: "Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal"

It is necessary to add ‘mostly’ and ‘most men’.

Really there are two variants of rationalization.

Man rationalizes not only his own behavior; first man rationalizes signals of his own the subconscious. And very often man rationalizes those signals wrongly.

- Man rationalizes signals of his own consciousness.

- Man rationalizes his own behavior.

- In sum man rationalizes his own rationalized behavior.

We want to kill bad fellows. But it is a bad affair. We don’t want to do that. We begin to rationalize, then we find enemies of bad fellows, and then we help to enemies of bad fellows to win.

As result of rationalization sometimes it is difficult to find first signal.

Level of norm of altruism is different for different societies and groups. So, level of violation of norms is different too. Level of norm in group of monks will differ from that level in group of pimps.

This category of altruism has not genetic propensity for, and mostly link with upbringing.

Actions if norm is violated can be linked with inherited aggressiveness and self-control, but it difficult to reveal clean evolutionary adaptations.

So, altruistic behavior second time is linked with aggressiveness.

4. Imitation of altruism. Altruism as conditional reflex

On human nature: A central goal of Nibbanic Buddhism is preserving the individual through altruism. The devotee earns points toward a better personal life by performing generous acts and offsets bad acts with meritorious ones.

Altruistic behavior can be inoculated as norm, as a natural behavior.

For example, child every time can see that parents give alms. Child doesn’t understand, for what to give alms. But after, during all his life, this man gives alms. It’s clean automatic action.

This is wrought conditional reflex. Beggar - alms. Brain doesn’t switch on.

It is necessary. To whom, for what - man doesn’t think.

Really, most of people don’t think about the most of their actions. They commit these actions not altruistically, not selfishly, but automatically.

Culture can be seen as a great deal of conditional reflexes.

The most part of human behavior is a fulfillment of non-conscious actions.


Violation of norm (3). Altruism is result of thinking and partly rationalization. Altruism is result of stress reaction.

Imitation (4). Altruism is not result of thinking but result of reflex behavior.

Sometimes norms have changed. Usually it happens during the wars. Behavior actions are contagious. Imitation is one of the most powerful instincts. Propaganda knows how to use that. To have more altruistic action someone have to show more altruistic action.

5. Sensible action

On Human Nature: ...we are fascinated by the extreme forms of self-sacrifice. In the First and Second World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam, a large percentage of Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to men who threw themselves on top of grenades to shield comrades, aided the rescue of others from battle sites at the cost of certain death to themselves, or made other extraordinary decisions that led to the same fatal end...

But it is necessary to add: if man can threw himself on top of grenade, grenade is so nearly, that that man has no chances to survive without variants.

Situation with grenade is not to save himself or not. Man in this situation is doomed. Question is to save the others or not. This question is a much simpler.

Sometimes man knows that his life is doomed. In such a situation any behavior may be chosen. And usually this behavior is an altruistic, accordingly to culture.

Sensible action can have different input data. These data can be true and can be wrong. These data can be true for somebody and can be wrong for somebody.

In every case, sensible action must be considered from point of acting altruist.

Sometimes man doesn’t know really data. Man could not know is God existed or not. But man admits that God is existed and his sensible action is made on the base that God is existed. It is a sensible action too.

Motive for sensible action is reasoning.

Actions like a situation with grenade need a great deal of self-control. But self-control in situation with grenade can be different. Monk can be almost saint and have excellent self-control, but is situation with grenade he will stay and pray. That behavior is result of his reasoning.

There are two situations are possible:

Observer sees an altruistic action. Doer makes altruistic action, he have managed by sensible reason.

Observer sees an altruistic action. Doer doesn’t make altruistic action, he have managed by sensible reason.

Altruism in situation of violation of norm demands low self-control. Sensible reason altruism demands high self-control.

To save humankind, including oneself, it is easy. To don’t save humankind it is necessary to be unique misanthrope.

6. Sympathy - antipathy

Usually sympathy is erroneous transfer of behavior from one subject to another. It happens subconsciously. E.g., chimpanzee has behavior set to take care of partner. If there is no partner, chimpanzee can apply that behavior set to human or pet.

Children provoke sympathy by mere their appearance. They have needed proportions for that. And if somebody sees these proportions, he has got command ‘care me!’

Sympathy may appear as a result of mimicking action.

Sympathy may appear on the base of forgotten associations.

There is multitude of variants for appearing of sympathy. How it is appear is another question. In this case is enough to know that sympathy has existing.

Sense of sympathy makes to perform altruistic actions.

Usually it is erroneous actions, which are intended for other goals. Its goal may be care about children or group members. Really, object of sympathy have got actions which are somebody’s other for.

Chimpanzees share prey with participant of hunting. All participants must get their share. It is a culture. But chimpanzee can share with somebody who doesn’t participate in hunting.

Mother chimpanzee feed children. Adult chimpanzee who had seen this action can repeat it with other member of group. Especially with those members of group, who have had his sympathy. It is a mimicking plus sympathy, and this action may become a cultural element.

Additional factors

These additional factors almost always have place and may to make finding of pure genetic adaptations complicated.

Different errors

Sex and Rank: Programs may work correctly or incorrectly, even correctly in an incorrect environment. When a person is incapable of following the program he becomes stressed.

Errors are most popular cause for actions, which are mistaken as altruism of animals.

If animal meets many factors it has stress, and mistaken actions are very possible.

Those may be errors of recognition and executive programs.

Dogs often adopt orphaned cats, squirrels, ducks, and even tigers. These are typical recognition errors.

In addition to sharing meat after their cooperative hunts, they also practice adoption. Jane Goodall has observed three cases at the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, all involving orphaned infants taken over by adult brothers and sisters.

Chimpanzees are more complex than dogs, and their errors are more complex. Chimps have added to action more imitation of other’s behaviors. Chimps have strongly pronounced sympathies. In general, chimpanzee’s adoptions are just ‘monkey action’. All the adopted have died, because chimpanzee males try to feed them by their breast.


It was shown before; altruists in most of cases are more aggressive than non-altruist.

Aggressive men more often protect other people, than non-aggressive.


For many occasions of altruism imagination, especially the strength of imagination is main motive. Man without imagination will not react on some situation, where man with imagination will act.


Self-control works as arbiter between programs, as switcher of programs with help of reasoning.

Man sometimes can suppress his programs by his own will, by his own reasoning and self-control.

Action in case of violations of norms usually needs weak self-control.

Sensible action needs strong self-control.

Altruism and age. Young are more inclined to risk actions. And young are more inclined to altruistic actions. Young have weaker self-control than adult. Very often action of altruism of young is result of lost self-control.

Some intermediate conclusion: Some altruistic preconditions are conflicting between itself, e.g. aggressiveness vs self-control. For evolution it is just support of golden mean.


When observers study human altruism, they must remember about rationalization. Way of thinking of man in dangerous situation is differed from usual way of thinking. For altruist it is difficult to find his own motives, so altruist would rationalize his own behavior.

Saying about situation with grenade, Wilson add this citation:

On human nature: But in the absolute, ultimate end, when your final extinction is right there only a few yards farther on staring back at you, there may be a sort of penultimate national, and social, and even racial, masochism - a sort of hotly joyous, almost-sexual enjoyment and acceptance - which keeps you going the last few steps. The ultimate luxury of just not giving a damn any more. (James Jones)

This is an example of typical rationalization. When people do altruistic action, usually they do not have enough time to think out such schemes. And the more time people have to think, the less chance they will make altruistic actions.

Misunderstanding of someone’s motives

To appreciate act of altruism an observer and a doer are needed.

Having met with norms of another group, people could mistake normal behavior for altruism.

Moreover, people could mistake selfish behavior for altruism.

Altruistic action may be prescribed as laws.

It is often as example of altruism a behavior of martyrs and terrorists are considered.

- It is possible, what terrorist so deeply perceive violation of norm, that his life become impossible, and suicide can be accepted as just one possible escaping. (Situation 2 and 3)

- Terrorist can trust in postmortem life with so high degree, what he accepts death as normal action, as normal next step of being. Most religious people have doubts about life beyond the grave. Martyrs don’t have such doubts. (Situation 5)

- Terrorist could account his own life as a big problem, and suicide is primary and just one possible decision. But he can add some other feelings as revenge, enmity, aversion to his suicide. That has happen when mass killing of schoolmates occur and when terrorists recruit women that has lost social status. (Situation 5)


In the science of ethology (the study of behavior), and more generally in the study of social evolution, on occasion, some animals do behave in ways that reduce their individual fitness but increase the fitness of other individuals in the population; this is a functional definition of altruism. (Wiki, ^ Robert L. Trivers (1971). "The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism". The Quarterly Review of Biology 46 (1): 35. doi:10.1086/406755.)

Kin and group behavior

To increase fitness of own children really is an action to increase own fitness. Fitness of children is equal to their individual fitness. If no children it is no fitness. Individual fitness cannot be without actions that directed on fitness of other individual, which are posterity.

It was said before that ‘reciprocal altruism’ is ‘paid love’.

If to suppose the support of posterity is altruism, almost every action would be altruism.

Mother comes to shop to buy some food for child. This is altruism, isn’t it?

And in same degree it is wrong to suppose that group actions are altruism.  Group actions are program actions, which support fitness of individual through support of fitness of group.

Kin selection has own programs of kin surviving. For example, grooming is. Executing of those programs is norm, non-executing is pathology. To call absence of pathology as altruism is wrong. These are not altruistic actions; it is just kin behavior and group behavior. If not all kin and group behaviors would be altruistic.

For social species it is impossible to separate "survival of the fittest individuals" from "survival of the fittest groups". For individual is impossible to survive if group wouldn’t survive.


On human nature: In spite of a fair abundance of such examples among vertebrates, it is only in the lower animals, and in the social insects particularly, that we encounter altruistic suicide comparable to man's. Many members of ant, bee, and wasp colonies are ready to defend their nests with insane charges against intruders.

Wilson like insects...

Generosity without hope of reciprocation...

This is from Wilson’s definition of altruism.

‘Generosity’ of insects - it is very difficult to agree, but possible.

But ‘hope of reciprocation’ of insects - it is beyond of imagination.

Sterile insect individuals cannot have self-sacrifice, because their life is just self-sacrifice.

Insects fulfill programs. They don’t have consciousness.

Question of self-sacrifice for being, which lives approx. 60 days, which doesn’t procreate and which doesn’t have consciousness is not question.

Working bee and warrior ant are born to make work and die, like cruise missile is made to make work and die. Those all are expendable material.

Male of mantis dies during mating because female bites off his head. But male of mantis is programmed for this action, and it is uneasy to call his behavior altruism. Matriphagy of spiders is the same situation - procreation needs that parent must be eaten, and this is the same program action.

On human nature: There are no hypocrites among the social insects.

Yes, it is so. But there are no altruists too.

Altruism implies mere conscious action, mere free of will, a mere choice, if not it is altruism of programmed cruise missile, which doesn’t know selfishness, consciousness and that is death.

So, strongly programmed, non-alternative behavior cannot be called ‘altruism’.

And this must be expanded on every programmed behavior, including kin and group behaviors.

Price of altruism

Some definitions imply that altruism is cost for altruist.

Wiki, first definition: Altruism is a well-documented animal behaviour, which appears most obviously in kin relationships but may also be evident amongst wider social groups, in which an animal sacrifices its own well-being for the benefit of another animal. ...

Wiki: In the science of ethology (the study of behavior), and more generally in the study of social evolution, on occasion, some animals do behave in ways that reduce their individual fitness but increase the fitness of other individuals in the population; this is a functional definition of altruism. (Robert L. Trivers (1971). "The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism".)

Really majority of acts of altruism costs nothing to altruist. And some people do altruistic actions because they have known that acts cost nothing. When baboons attack leopard they know that cost will be nothing (if baboons will be together). If man help old lady cross the street, he has known that he will not be knocked by track.

Bird ran into glass of cage of gorilla and has lost consciousness. Gorilla takes the bird and tries it to help to fly. Gorilla helps bird is undoubtedly altruism. But what it cost to gorilla? Nothing is.

Altruism is behavior, which increases fitness of individuals, which don’t belong to group of doer, and isn’t a normal behavior, and admits alternative behavior.


Just ‘altruism’ doesn’t exist. There are some phenomena, which united under one term.

Altruism is not a phenomenon; it is a set of phenomena.

Moreover, all variants of altruism are derivative from other behavioral patterns.

Motives for altruism are instinct, reflex and reason. And errors of instinct, reflex, and reason.

‘Altruisms’ are not adaptations themselves. It is corollary of adaptations.

Sometimes altruism could be result of inertia of evolutionary adaptation.

No link between altruism and homosexuality is found.

Types of altruism are

1. Defense of group members. Identification error.

2. Mimicking action itself.

3. Perception of norm and violation of norm.

4. Imitation of altruism. Altruism as conditional reflex.

5. Sensible action of altruism.

6. Sympathy and antipathy.

Almost never any type works as single-handed; usually altruism action is combination of types.

There are additional factors, list see above.

Scientists can find genes for every type of altruism, but they cannot find genes for ‘general altruism’, which is not exist. But now they have to find genes for ‘general altruism’.

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